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Topical Questions

Volume 525: debated on Monday 14 March 2011

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks, and that we honour the armed forces covenant.

Will the Secretary of State explain in detail and publish in full his views on the unfunded liability—supposedly left by the last Labour Government —on equipment, procurement and support programmes over the next 10 years?

I will not be the only one to set out that information, as I am sure the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Select Committee on Defence will want to make it perfectly clear. I have made it clear, including in the evidence I gave to the Select Committee last week, that I would like to see greater transparency in how the Department makes its information available. As for the unfunded liability we inherited from the previous Government and the damage it has done to our ability to plan for the future—

The hon. Gentleman asks where the £38 billion has gone; he should know; he left it behind. It was his Government who were responsible for it. We shall diminish that unfunded liability and put the Department back on a sound footing—something that Labour Members were incapable of doing.

T2. The United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative on children and armed conflict recently reported on the Afghan national police’s recruitment of children to fight and on the sexual exploitation of young boys by Afghan police and military commanders. Given this disturbing evidence, will the Secretary of State explain what guidance is given to British military and police trainers when they encounter children in the Afghan national security forces? (45722)

Afghan civilians must be 18 or above to join either the Afghan national police or the army. That is checked as rigorously as possible through the much-improving recruitment process. If there is any allegation of wrongdoing brought to the attention of the British forces, it will be taken extremely seriously and reported to the Afghan commanders. We would unreservedly condemn any act of abuse or brutality. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior addresses children’s rights issues and certainly recognises 18 as the age of majority. If there are any specific allegations, he should—

T3. I am not sure that the Secretary of State’s earlier answer was entirely clear, so perhaps he will try again. Will he tell us who specifically in his Department authorised the involvement of special forces in Libya on 2 March? (45723)

I have already made it clear that the Foreign Secretary set out the exact details, as far as we are able to disclose them, on that particular operation. When force protection is to be offered to the sort of diplomatic mission that was undertaken, it is quite usual for the Ministry of Defence to be asked and to agree to do it.

T5. The Secretary of State and his Department regularly meet the Royal British Legion and other veterans organisations. At those meetings, how much emphasis is placed on the fact that the military covenant is enshrined in law and, critically, on determining in what form and when that military covenant will be met? (45725)

I last met the director general of the Royal British Legion last Monday to discuss this very matter. There are many organisations involved and they all have their views to put forward. I think that the covenant is proceeding well. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has been written into law in the Armed Forces Bill and I hope that he will speak further about it on Report and Third Reading when they happen, shortly.

Ministry of Defence police do an essential and difficult job with a great deal of professionalism and expertise, but they face a potential cut of one third in their numbers. That would mean more than 1,000 officers losing their jobs. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of such a drastic reduction in the number of MOD police officers on the protection of military bases?

I pay tribute to the work done by the MOD police, and the protection of military bases is of course essential. However, we are constrained by the lack of funds left behind by the last Government. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members grimacing; it is true. For that reason, we are having to consider savings in all areas, and I am afraid that everyone must play their part.

T6. As well as supporting the movement opposing Gaddafi in Libya, what steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take to support the democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen, especially in view of the events of recent days? (45726)

I think there is a difference between the two cases that my hon. Friend has cited. There is great concern about the possibility that the collapse of the Yemeni state would lead to an increase in the influence of al-Qaeda. It is therefore of great importance to the United Kingdom’s national security that we do what we can to stabilise the situation, while ensuring that we can evacuate United Kingdom citizens safely if the regime cannot hold.

T4. Given that Wales contains a fifth of the United Kingdom’s population but 8% of its military population, does the Secretary of State accept that the consequences of cuts that come too fast and go too deep will affect Wales disproportionately? What will he do to ensure that loyalty is repaid not with penalties but with respect? (45724)

Decisions on the footprint of the United Kingdom’s armed forces are made primarily on the basis of military effectiveness. However, notwithstanding the level of cuts that must be made in order to balance the books, I personally ascribe great importance to maintaining a footprint throughout the Union. [Interruption.] What we are hearing is a very boring record. The difference between the main parties and the nationalists in the House is that we believe in maintaining a footprint throughout the Union, whereas they do not believe in having UK armed forces at all.

T10. I am sure that the Minister will agree that while our British forces are in Afghanistan, it is important for them to contribute to the development of a strong humanitarian legacy of basic health care, education and clean drinking water for the people of Afghanistan. What steps is his Department taking, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, to help to secure that legacy? (45730)

We work very closely with DFID on all those issues. As my hon. Friend correctly implies, if we are to have a sustainable legacy in Afghanistan, it cannot simply involve the strength of the armed forces or the police; there must also be strong governance and a strong infrastructure.

T9. Given the consideration in recent weeks of no-fly zones over Libya, do the Government still intend to make 170 trainee pilots redundant? (45729)

The number of trainee pilots is designed to mirror the number of airframes that we intend to be able to fly in future. That was set out in the SDSR. As I remind hon. Members on every occasion, one of the reasons that we are having to make reductions in the budget is the £158 billion deficit left behind by the Labour Government, on which the interest payments alone are greater than next year’s defence, Foreign Office and aid budgets put together.

The House rightly pays tribute to our military personnel who are serving in Afghanistan. On Friday the Minister for the Armed Forces visited the Colchester garrison, where he will have seen on one side of the road former Army housing that is now social housing, on which millions of pounds are being spent by one arm of Government. Can the Minister explain why the same amount cannot be spent on housing on the other side of the road, where the fathers and husbands of military personnel in Afghanistan live?

My hon. Friend has rightly taken up this cause. We want to see all service personnel, whether single or married, in good-quality accommodation. As he will know, there is a huge backlog but we are working on it, although our work is constrained by the £38 billion deficit with which we were left. I hope very much that we shall be able to continue that work, particularly in the Colchester garrison.

The Minister will be aware of the widespread concern at Defence Support Group in Sealand about ongoing job losses—and, indeed, the Government’s proposals to find a buyer for the business. Why, therefore, has he barred me from visiting the site?

I am not aware of any such condition, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to come and see me about it, I will be very happy to discuss it with him.

Given that the Batch 3 Type 22s have recently proved their value in both evacuating British nationals and vital intelligence gathering, and that no other platforms have such persistence, would it not be prudent to keep them intact during the current uncertain times in the world?

It would be very attractive to be able to maintain a great deal of capability but, sadly, we are unable to do so because of financial constraints. It would be wonderful in a perfect world for us to be able not only to retain these assets but to invest in future assets as well, but if we are to be able to make investments in the future to deal with the threats we may face, we have to disinvest from some of the capabilities of the past, albeit with regret.

The Secretary of State will know of the commitment of the people of Plymouth to keeping the Royal Navy at sea, using all the skills we have in Plymouth. However, we need to know what is going to happen with regard to the Type 23s and the replacement for Endurance. What is the time scale for telling the people of Plymouth whether or not any of those ships will be base-ported in our city?

It gives me great pleasure to be able to commend the people of Plymouth for the great commitment they have made over many years. We will have announcements to make in the very near future on some of the issues the hon. Lady mentions, and I will ensure she is made aware of them before we make them available to others.

Given the unique relationship between the sovereign and members of the armed forces, will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department intends to do to commemorate next year’s diamond jubilee?

The Government will cross-departmentally set out their proposals on the diamond jubilee in the near future. The House will be informed in the usual way.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), exactly how are the public supposed to maintain confidence in our programme to replace the Trident deterrent when the president of one of the governing parties is apparently given carte blanche to cheer up his battered activists by telling them it probably will not go ahead at all?

The coalition agreement made it very clear that the Liberal Democrats within the coalition would be free to advocate alternatives to the replacement programme. The overall Government policy remains the replacement of the Trident programme however, and, as I said earlier today, the best solution for the United Kingdom is a submarine-based, continuously-at-sea, minimum-credible nuclear deterrent that protects the UK while contributing to overall reductions in international nuclear arsenals.

It is a sorry state of affairs when calls for a no-fly zone from the interim national Libyan council are endorsed by the Arab League but the European Union fails to back them. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the security risk of inaction, should the international community fail to take responsibility to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi?

My hon. Friend makes a useful point. The Government’s aim is very clear: we want to see the isolation of, and a diminution in the size and effectiveness of, the regime in Libya, which we believe has lost legitimacy. The aim is for the international community to speak with a single voice, and the more we are united, the more we send a signal to Colonel Gaddafi that the game is up and he has no friends and no future in Libya or beyond.

Will the Secretary of State now answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): how much has so far been spent on the Trident replacement?

I have set out on a number of occasions the different areas in which we spend. We have to spend in advance because there are long-lead items that need to be spent on in order to make sure we are able to take the decisions at the points we have set in initial gate, and main gate when we get to 2015.

Last week, we saw evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with our allies to ensure that weapons intended for the Taliban are being actively intercepted?

At the weekend’s NATO summit in Brussels and at the subsequent international security assistance force meeting we raised with our allies our concerns about the arming of the Taliban by Iran. This is a clear example, if we needed any, of the potentially malign influence that Iran can have in the region and it should be a warning to us all about its potential intent.

I recently visited the Merseyside garrison headquarters, where I met Territorial Army soldiers. Does the Secretary of State share their concerns that changes to the home-to-duty travel allowance will mean that by 2013 a TA soldier who lives 9 miles or more from their TA centre will receive £4 less every time they attend their place of duty for training?

It is with a great deal of regret that one of the savings we are having to make in the Ministry of Defence is in the level of allowances available to service personnel. However, I must say to the hon. Lady that financial remuneration and allowances will be part of the picture of the wider review being undertaken of the Territorials and the reserves. We will want to look at that in the totality of the review of the reserves to make sure we get better value for money and more effective reserves.

As my right hon. Friend concludes his consultation on the security and technology Green Paper, will he ensure that he does not make the previous Government’s mistake of allowing MOD prime contractors to obstruct small and medium-sized enterprises in getting their fair share of the defence procurement pie?

It has been an aim of the Government from the outset when looking at defence technology and the procurement process to ensure that SMEs are given more than a fair crack of the whip. For too long, this has been about the prime contractors, with too little consideration given to the SMEs, which represent in this country not only vibrancy in technology and innovation but a major source of employment.

On the arms trade, does the Secretary of State agree with Mr Tom Porteous of UK Human Rights Watch that our country is being made to “look stupid” because of the conduct of our special trade representative? Should we not be employing trade representatives on the basis of their knowledge of industry, ethics and human rights, rather than on the hereditary principle?

Mr Speaker, you made it very clear last time that because members of the royal family cannot answer back we should be very careful what we say in this House about them. It is fair to say that not only do we follow the legislation set down by the previous Government, but we have some of the tightest regulations on arms trading in the world.

We are entering a time of increasing geomagnetic solar flare activity. Will the Secretary of State say what mitigating effects are being considered to protect military communications?

This issue is being looked at globally. I may have responsibility for many things, but solar activity is not one of them.